A Brief History Of Bikers Rights In America

By Bill Bish

Easyriders magazine editor Lou Kimzey issued a plea in issue #3, October 1971, for bikers to come together to fight impending restrictions from  NHTSA by joining a new national bikers’ rights organization called the National Custom Cycle Association, but because of a conflict with the acronym the name was changed in February 1972 to A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE).    Easyriders began granting state charters around 1974.   Almost every state during this time passed handlebar height restrictions, mandatory eye protection, motorcycle licensing requirements, lights on laws and other equipment regulations, and many other restrictions on our “Freedom Machines” were being considered by legislators and bureaucrats to make motorcycling “safer”.

In July of 1975, Rob Rasor of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), Ron Roloff of the MMA of California and Ed Armstrong of ABATE of Chicago presented the House Sub-Committee on Surface Transportation with convincing testimony to repeal the helmet mandates.   Later that year, with California being sued by the DOT because Governor Ronald Reagan refused to comply with the federal helmet law mandate, Roloff helped convince California Senator Alan Cranston to offer the language of the bill as an amendment to the 1975 Federal Highway Act, which passed with overwhelming support from the California delegation because of the impending lawsuit, and was signed by president Gerald Ford on May 5, 1976. Not bad for a rag tag bunch of bikers with little or no previous political ambitions.

Spurred on by many successful protest rallies around the country following the national helmet law repeal, and the eventual repeal of more than 30 state helmet laws, ABATE, MMA and other motorcycle rights organizations sprang up in every state and are now a fixture in Capitols across America.  During this same time, many state rights groups have become proactive within their states instead of RE-acting to legislative threats. Minnesota passed our nation’s first law  to make it illegal to discriminate against someone because they ride a motorcycle; Arizona, Iowa, Oregon and Washington have successfully repealed or modified their state’s handlebar height law; Virginia and Illinois have lobbied their states to reinforce the federally guaranteed access to roads by passing laws to protect our rights to ride on any roads within their state boundaries; and several states have fought and defeated so-called “No Fault” insurance proposals that are unfair to motorcyclist.

So, there you have it. The roots of ABATE and bikers’ rights run deep in the hearts of those  of us who have accepted and, in turn, passed on the torch of Freedom of the Road. To all of those who came before, we salute you!    But, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Margaret Mead;  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that has.”                                                                                                                                                         Bill Bish

The National Coalition of Motorcyclists started a little over 35 years ago by Richard M. Lester.  It’s very interesting because Richard Lester did not get his law degree until he was in his 40’s.  Prior to his becoming an attorney he was a wild animal trainer and trapper for zoos.  He attended law school by night and worked in a head shop and waterbed store during the day.  After he got his law degree he had a biker for a client and discovered that bikers were not very well legally represented.  He decided to do something about it and started A.I.M. (Aid to Injured Motorcyclists) and N.C.O.M. (National Coalition of Motorcyclists).  The first Confederation of Clubs (C.O.C.) started in Southern California and soon after C.O.C.’s were springing up in every state across the country*.  Patch holders now have a motorcycle rights organization that works for them in their area.  Each C.O.C. is unique to its own area. **

* Added by the Oregon COC Webmaster due to updated information.

**At one time there was a link to the Easyrider Magazine Interview of Richard Lester from August 1986 but it is no longer available online.

The Oregon Confederation of Clubs’ inaugural meeting was on October 17th, 1998.  For nearly 20 years Oregon motorcycle clubs have been coming together to monitor legal cases affecting their rights as individuals under the US Constitution and as lawful organizations.  They have been doing this with the help of very good A.I.M. attorneys (thank you Christopher Slater).  The Oregon COC also works with Motorcycle Rights Organizations such as A.B.A.T.E. of Oregon and BikePac of Oregon regarding legislation impacting bikers in the State of Oregon.

A.B.A.T.E. of Oregon (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments) has had its own awesome history.  Members from several different motorcycle clubs in Oregon such as Brother Speed Motorcycle Club, Outsiders Motorcycle Club, Gypsy Jokers Motorcycle Club, and the Free Souls Motorcycle Club, as well as a good number of independents were charter members of A.B.A.T.E. of Oregon.  A.B.A.T.E of Oregon became a tax exempt 501(c) 4 organization on November 14, 1975.   There have been many battles and ups and downs over the last 45 years.  The list below does not list all the crazy things the Oregon legislature has tried or thought of enacting over the years – so many of those things were squashed in the early stages of development.  Nor does this list recognize all the political battles waged over the years.   Again, not bad for a rag-tag bunch of bikers who didn’t know much about the system.  These same bikers have come to understand the system and then use that very same system to save themselves from the system.  We have done pretty well for ourselves over the years.  The freedom fighting continues to this very day.

And the torch does get passed on to the next generation of biker.  The new biker will not always be riding a Harley.  These new riders ride just about everything.  Many of them are experienced racers either on the track or in the dirt.  Some are club members.   They bring a new skill set and outlook.  Can they fight for their freedom to ride?  By all indication they are more than capable to make sure we all will continue to ride free for many years to come.

A.B.A.T.E. / BikePac VICTORIES 

Over 45 Years of protecting our right to ride!

1977  –  Oregon’s mandatory helmet law is repealed. ABATE membership CAMPED OUT ON THE CAPITOL STEPS day and night during this time.  Our legislators overwhelmingly passed the repeal and it became law.

1979  –  ABATE of Oregon proposed the first rider safety program which was signed into law in 1981 and became Team Oregon.

1988  – Helmet choice was again taken away through voter referendum during one of the lowest voter turnouts in Oregon history.

1988  – ABATE members form “BikePac” in order to have an official presence in the capitol.

1995  –  ABATE facilitates the passing of HB 3422 which redefines the Oregon definition of a “motorcycle helmet” and gets the penalty for not wearing a helmet reduced to a Class D misdemeanor.

1997 – HB 2454 allowing for adult freedom of choice helmet reform passes in both the House and the Senate, but is vetoed by Governor Kitzhaber.

1997 – Landmark federal court ruling that law enforcement cannot further inquire into whether a rider’s helmet meets so-called “federal testing standards” if it meets the Oregon helmet definition.

1999 –  REPEAL of the “handlebar height law” in Oregon.  Ape hangers are now legal with no restrictions.

2001 –  HB 3885 is passed allowing Oregon motorcyclists the right to fuel their own machines.

2001 – 2013:  The political climate for riders during this time was tough.  However, at EVERY legislative session, ABATE introduced helmet freedom of choice legislation. In addition, laws were stifled pertaining to a wide variety of rider rights issues including: motorcycle sound and emissions, rider law enforcement harassment and profiling, legal firearm transportation clarity, ethanol gasoline usage, all-terrain vehicle laws, safety and training laws, and much more.

As of 2015 BikePac has focused their efforts on legislation most important to riders.  Note: the helmet law has been a distant concern with other priorities being worked on in its place.

2015 – SB 533 the “Dead Red” Light Bill passes!  Riders can now go through a red light after 1 cycle if one’s bike does not trigger the light.

2017 – HB 2598 “Driver Responsibility Law” passes – when a driver is determined to be reckless can be charged with vehicular assault = Class A Misdemeanor.  Driver can be put away for up to one year in prison and a maximum fine up to $6,250.  Great thanks to our AIM Attorney Christopher Slater!!

2019 – HB 2314 Lane Sharing bill was been assigned to the Joint Transportation Committee and unfortunately died there.  This is the third legislative session riders have tried to get lane sharing legislation passed.  Bikers and Riders are gaining much respect in our Capitol.  Note:  BikePac fully supports this effort to make lane sharing legal in Oregon for all riders.  Also, great thanks goes to Patrick Leyshock taking the lead on this bill.  He did an absolutely awesome job. 

2019 – SB 810 Driver Accountability Law Senate Bill 810 was signed into law by Governor Brown.  Effective January 1, 2020, it will be a CRIME for a criminally negligent driver to injure a motorcyclist or their passenger. It also requires careless drivers who injure riders to attend safety school and perform community service including driver training and traffic safety.  Note this bill was submitted by Christopher Slater, AIM Attorney but was fully supported by ABATE/BikePac.  This bill passed by wide margins in both Houses.